TOPICS: Australia-New Zealand Defence Ministers’ Meeting; China; the Royal Australian Navy; Afghanistan; Detainee management
JIM MIDDLETON: Despite their common interests as the major powers in the South Pacific, Australia and New Zealand have not always enjoyed the most comfortable of Defence relationships, especially after New Zealand was suspended from the ANZUS Treaty in the early 1980s.
But now the old closeness has returned and today Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith flew to Wellington for the latest in a regular series of discussions with his New Zealand counterpart Wayne Mapp.
Minister welcome to the program.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure Jim.
JIM MIDDLETON: The military rise of China has been very much a matter of interest and concern in recent months. As Pacific powers it's a matter of particular importance for Australia and New Zealand. To what extent did you discuss the issue in your talks with your New Zealand counterpart today?
STEPHEN SMITH: Obviously Australia and New Zealand are both countries in the Pacific. Australia very much has a focus on its own region, the Asia Pacific and the rise of China together with the rise of India and the rise of ASEAN economies combined is one of the reasons why economic, political, military and strategic influence is moving to our part of the world.
So yes, we spoke about China, a couple of developments that we regard as very important: both Australia and New Zealand share the view that the addition of the United States and Russia to the East Asia Summit and the addition effectively of United States and Russia to the so-called ASEAN Plus Defence Ministers' Meeting, a very good development. Essentially this gets all of the key players from our region in the same room at the same time, able to have a conversation about not just economic and prosperity issues but also about security and stability issues.
JIM MIDDLETON: So Australia and New Zealand are not concerned about China getting too big for its boots as it were, building up its capabilities beyond what's necessary simply to defend its borders?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'll speak in Australian terms. We have made the point both publicly and privately that as China rises as an economic power, of course we expect that it will add to its military prowess. What we ask of China is that in terms of the growth or the expansion of its military prowess that it needs to be transparent about its strategic intent. And we say that to China publicly and we say that to China privately.
China is emerging as a new great power on the rise. But it's not the only power on the rise. Under-appreciated is the rise of India and also there's often an implication that because China is rising somehow the United States is fading away or going away. Two of the most important bilateral relationships in the course of this century will be the bilateral relationship between the United States and China and United States and India, but also the relationship between India and China.
So we've got more than one great power either on the rise or continuing and that needs to be managed both in a regional context but also in an international context and we want to see positive productive relationships between all of those three powers, both bilaterally but also more generally in our region.
JIM MIDDLETON: Okay to matters closer to home, just what's wrong with the Australian Navy? The revelation to Parliament that fully two-thirds of the navy's ships were unable to put to sea at some point in the first six months of last year…
STEPHEN SMITH: I think people need to proceed on firm foundation of fact and understanding and not on a faulty premise. Firstly the Australian Navy like any Navy doesn't operate on the basis that every ship it has is in the water at the same time, that's the first point. Ships can be in the water on operation but they can also be being used for training, they can be under maintenance, they can be out of service for additional facilities to be added to them, whether it's combat enhancement and the like. So it's a faulty premise to proceed on the basis that every ship is in the water at the same time.
Having said that, it is the case that the Navy has fully completed the tasks assigned to it over the last 12 months and at the same time has also fully completed its international and domestic training or exercise obligations.
Having said that, Navy has some challenges, the Defence Force has some challenges. A particular challenge for Navy is amphibious lift capability. We've had a longstanding, well known challenge in terms of submarine maintenance and operation and we have a challenge in terms of training and manning submarines and our ships so there are serious challenges.
JIM MIDDLETON: But it's just not good enough is it when Australia's frontline defence, the Collins Class submarines were seaworthy for just 32 per cent of the year. That's not full time defence is it?
STEPHEN SMITH: We have had long standing challenges in terms of submarine maintenance and operation. They're not issues that have emerged in the last three months or the last three years, that's the first point.
Secondly it is also the case internationally, not just with Australian submarines but with other submarine fleets that again, not every submarine is in the water at the same time. But we are working very hard on the Collins Class submarine maintenance program, just as we are working very hard and thinking very carefully about our commitment for a fleet of 12 submarines into the future as part of our 2009 White Paper and Force 2030.
JIM MIDDLETON: By the by are you able to update us on developments and discussions with the British about using one of their support vessels, while the Tobruk, the Manoora and the Kanimbla remain unseaworthy or out of service?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've made remarks in recent days about accepting to decommission to Manoora, accepting advice at the Kanimbla would be out of service until the middle of next year. We're working very hard to put Tobruk on effectively a 48-hour operational call. But it's quite clear that as we transition to our new amphibious fleet with Landing Helicopter Dock ships arriving effectively from Spain on a 2014-2016 timetable, that we now have capacity challenge and capacity constraint.
So I've spoken, when UK Defence Secretary Fox was in Australia, about the possibility of Australia leasing a Bay Class amphibious vessel. Since that meeting I've spoken to him by telephone last week and we're working very hard to see whether it's possible to acquire such a vessel. And that would be in our view a good compliment to our capability. And that is a very good prospect, just as today's development, which is agreement for enhanced cooperation, enhanced interoperability and if I can use this expression, effectively potentially some joint use of the New Zealand amphibious ship Canterbury, provides us with another potential additional compliment which will be very handy as we make that transition, particularly in the disaster relief and humanitarian assistance area in our own region.
JIM MIDDLETON: Turning briefly to Afghanistan, I was talking to Australian strategist David Kilcullen last week who was suggesting that the military effort in that country was now going very well indeed but this was not being matched by developments on the civil and political front. Given that Australia's responsibility is training Afghan Army and Police units, are you concerned at all about this lag in developments?
STEPHEN SMITH: These things will develop at different rates in different provinces or districts. So, for example, we know as we transition over the period to 2014 to Afghan-led responsibility for security matters, that will vary from province to province, district to district, depending upon the capacity of the Afghan forces to take it over. Equally there will be graduations and differences in the capacity building and development assistance and civilian capacity, both at central and provincial level.
So it will be uneven but there are two effective bows to the international communities’ efforts. One is security, transitioning it Afghan-led responsibility, the other is helping to build the Afghan civilian capacity, the capacity of its institutions and progress on both fronts will vary. But in what is a very difficult and dangerous environment I think we have slowly but surely made progress. But 2011 will be a very challenging year for us in Afghanistan and in the Australian context we've got 1550 people in Uruzgan Province and I certainly don't see any capacity for that to be downsized or withdrawn. We're still, in our view, one to three years away from meeting our training obligation but we do very much believe we're on track to do that within the 2014 aspiration set by the international community.
JIM MIDDLETON: Australia's new detainee management arrangement will see some Afghan detainees handed over to what is essentially the Afghan secret police, The National Directorate of Security. Amnesty International says the NDS has a very poor record of torturing detainees and shouldn't be allowed to handle detainees, instead detainees should be handed over to the regular Afghan authorities. Are you aware of the NDS's record when it comes to handling prisoners?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly I wouldn't characterise or categorise it in that way. Let me make some general points.
Firstly when the Dutch left Uruzgan Province they previously had accepted responsibility for detainee management. With the departure of the Dutch we had to enter into new arrangements which we formalised at the end of last year. And in general terms what that means is for people who are detained for what are described as low level or low risk detainees they are handed over to Afghan authorities. And for high risk or high level detainees they are handed over to the United States for detention in the Parwan facility. That's the first general point.
Secondly we take our obligations, both our international legal obligations and our domestic legal obligations, very seriously. That's why we have ensured that in terms of what we do, that is open to effective inspection by the relevant international community organisations, like the International Red Cross. We are very vigilant and diligent about the record keeping that we do and the manner in which we detain and treat people. If there are any suggestions of ill-treatment, which occur from time to time, they are exhaustively investigated.
So we deal with these matters very, very conscientiously and seriously. So I don't categorise the approach that we have taken in the manner in which your question would suggest. If there are any allegations of ill-treatment or bad behaviour for detainees who have come into our control we treat those very seriously and they are exhaustively investigated.
JIM MIDDLETON: Are you confident detainees handed over by Australian forces won't be subjected to torture?
STEPHEN SMITH: What I am confident of is that in terms of the processes that we have put in place, in the terms of the arrangements that we have made for people within our care and responsibility we have taken every reasonable sensible and necessary step that we can to do our best to ensure that people are treated in a humane civilised and dignified manner if they are detained by Australian forces. We are very vigilant about that. We open our own facility up for inspection by the International Red Cross and we believe that we have put in place all of the mechanisms that we can to ensure that people are treated in accordance with the relevant conventions and we are assiduous about that. We regard ourselves as being bound by international and domestic legal obligations and we do our very best to meet those.
JIM MIDDLETON: Minister thanks once again.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim, thanks very much.